IDFA 2013: The Endless Frontier of Interactive Reality

Reporting from IDFA, LJ Kessels lifts the lid on the near infinite storytelling possibilities when makers go fully interactive.


In the future of storytelling, who is the cat and who is the mouse?
In the future of storytelling, who is the cat and who is the mouse?

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The Interactive Reality Conference on November 24th was organized by IDFA Doclab’s Caspar Sonnen and Veerle Devreese of The Flemish Culture House (de Brakke Grond) and hosted by Ove Rishoj Jensen. It presented a diverse collection of speakers who demonstrated the range of activity on the frontier of interactive documentary: from the launch of a new documentary database, named _docubase, by MIT and Upian that seeks to archive, curate, and promote the wide variety of transient interactive gems, to demonstrations by (in)famous artists such as Vincent Morisset, Brent Hoff, Jonathan Harris, and Paolo Cirio. The conference also provided space for creators in the field by presenting the results of the Masterclash Hackathon and so much more. I’m still buzzing with excitement over all the possibilities. In the following I will focus on the main developments presented, tips shared, and possibilities given during the eight-hour conference at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam.

The terminology and forms are changing. More unsettling, even, as web department director of ARTE France, Marianne Levy LeBlond said during her presentation, there are “no formats ahead.” Every new project requires it’s own multi-platform approach. That necessary singularity leads to practices as described by Kira Pollack of Time Magazine that must rethink business models and create a separate canvas, such as what Time did with their Beyond 9/11 photography and video project on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. In tackling the problem of engagement and longevity long after the main page’s headlines have been refreshed, these specific interactive platforms serve as an engaged archive that one can play with. However these sites, apps, games, and other forms are not simply spaces where the pieces can go to rest. The key is to remain active and dynamic so that it doesn’t disappear into the cyber void. The fundamental shift is to create a multiplatform project wherein the audience engages and plays with the product and creates their own stories off a news-based timeline. There is a stepping away from the traditional documentary where one sits in a dark room and watches the story unfold once, maybe more times in a home-viewing situation.

Jason Brush described the development from the restricted form of old media formats as "making filmic storytelling elastic." Traditional forms had its makers keep in mind the type and size of screen it would end up on. However in a multiplatform realm, every audience member creates his or her own story and easily interchanges between them. The possibilities become unlimited. Yet the main point dragged home in almost every presentation is that it is key to collaborate with the software developer on the specific form that is suited for the specific project.

Since it’s creation in 2008, IDFA’s Doclab has sought to “showcase interactive documentaries and other new digital artforms that successfully push the boundaries of documentary storytelling in the age of the interface.” At the start of the conference, curator Caspar Sonnen thanked the late Peter Wintonick who helped him develop Doclab six years ago. Their goal has been and remains to build bridges between traditional documentary storytelling and the interactive world.

With the loss of form restrictions, forms and formats become endless, as do the stories that the audience, or makers, can choose to create. Take, for example, projects like David Dufresne’s Fort McMoney, Kat Cizek’s Highrise, or Vincent Morriset’s music video Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) for Arcade Fire. One conference attendee asked via Twitter, the question on all of our minds: When is a story done? And in a way, it never fully is, and possibly that is the point. As in the case of 17000 islands, by Thomas A Østbye for instance, people create their own cut of the film about Indonesia, slowly picking away at the constellation or director’s cut, until the director’s cut is completely dissolved.

Organizations that are currently leading the charge, in regard to collaborating and endorsing interactive documentary projects are National Film Board of Canada (NFB Canada) and ARTE France. Some of the best projects that I’ve seen in the last week had partnerships or affiliations with the NFB or ARTE France (such as Dufresne’s Fort McMoney). It’s a documentary game developed over the last two years that combines stories from Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada with The Sims. During each of its four weeks, you collect influence points, meet the inhabitants of this petroleum town, and vote in referenda. It is an intense experience of reality, the human condition, and engagement, and a perfect example of what interactive documentary can be.

Established talent and notorious artists presented their work during the conference and young talent also got a platform, most notably during the presentation of the results of the Masterclash Hackathon, where developers and filmmakers, mentored by successful professionals, showcased their different projects in different stages of development. The 48-hour session that preceded the presentations had been used to develop a project or tackle a specific problem as part of a project. Be on the lookout for Apoidea by Callum Cooper and Ana Tiquia. They were mentored by NFB’s Hugues Sweeney and Upian's Thomas Deyries. This project allows the user to explore the 300-year-old bee collection of the Science Museum, London. Through the app you can see and learn about the 10,000 different bee species that are locked away in wooden cases within the tombs of the museum.

As there is no format to follow and the forms still a multitude of possibility, one has to hold on to the lessons given during Doclab. One of those lessons was voiced in the co-presentation of Ingrid Kopp (Tribeca New Media Fund) and Adnaan Wasey (POV Interactive) on the top five lessons on a good Hackathon:

“Only filmmakers open to collaboration make great projects.”

Most software developers are creative and you can tap into a greater realm of possibilities for your project if you, as a filmmaker, come into the Hackathon, or any project for the matter, with and open mind and don’t come to the developer and just say what you want him or her to build for you.

Other lessons I took down:

“Do more with nothing, do better with little and do it now.” -Vincent Morisset

“Is it preferable to silence?”-Jonathan Harris

And finally, the biggest question of all, that of funding, to which there never seems to be a satisfactory answer. However I did get away with two tips from Annika Gustafson (Boost HBG), namely, to answer these questions with every project:

Who else has interest in what you do?

Who is having a problem in the area you are interested in?

All of this left me with one final question: When am I doing a Hackathon and completing my own project? My answer is... after I’ve finished playing Fort McMoney.

Want to read more about the event? Check out this great Storify live blog, including tweets, mentioned projects, and quotes created by Katía Truijen.